By Max Neopikhanov:

‘Arcades are dead.’ Those words have echoed throughout the video game industry since the early ’90s, when video game giants Nintendo and Sega brought  games out of the small niche of arcade halls and Atari consoles, and into the living rooms of millions of ordinary people who were enthralled with Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Arcade vendors did not know it yet, but home video game consoles would not only become more popular than arcade halls, they would supplant them almost entirely.

Industry experts say arcade games just a novelty, a nostalgic link to a bygone era, and that home consoles have completely replaced cabinets just as online gaming has all but eradicated local gaming communities. They say the virtual has trumped the real because the virtual is easier and quicker. But in a busy metropolis that’s home to every sort of gamer imaginable, one arcade has become a stronghold that promotes the survival of a community, a community that relishes the golden age of arcades, a community that is home to some of the most competitive gamers on the east coast.

Just a few streets away from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, amidst a quiet and unassuming residential neighborhood, stands the last link to the glory days of the 90s arcade scene. Transcending the boundaries of business and community, Next Level arcade, which opened last march under Henry Cen, former manager of the legendary Chinatown Fair arcade, is currently the premier proving grounds for die hard fighting game fanatics in the city. “If they’re hardcore, they’re gonna come here,” boasted Cen. “If they have something to prove, they’re gonna come here.”

The small storefront is very Spartan and unassuming.  There is no glamorous sign, no neon lights, in fact not much to differentiate it from any other mom and pop video game shop.  However, step inside, and the story becomes quite different.   The cacophony of sound is near deafening.  It is almost impossible to tell which is louder: the high tempo dance music, the sound of grunts and punches from the games, or the chattering of the 30 or so gamers tightly packed in the small space. “You have ten minutes if you want to register for the tournament,” a booming voice announces over the loudspeaker.  Walk up to the front counter and you’ll see the tell tale signs of an arcade, several music and dance arcade games and a few arcade cabinets, but walk past them, and suddenly everything seems remarkably different.

Instead of more traditional arcade cabinets found in the front,  numerous Xbox 360 video game consoles hooked up to large high definition LCD screens line both sides of the corridor – in front of which sit a row of gamers, arcade sticks in their lap.  There are no slots for quarters here.  Next Level charges three dollars per hour of play, ten dollars for an entire day, and an additional three dollars if one wants to rent an arcade stick.  In comparison, Dave & Buster’s, the restaurant, bar and arcade chain, charges up to $2 per individual play for certain games.

Rather than having to pay per play as is fairly standard in the industry, at gamers at Next Level say the goal is not to make quarters last but rather to learn from and study their opponents and make friends.  “People are more social here,” explained Cen.  “In a [traditional] arcade setting, people can look aggressive or passive and you may not want to approach them.”

The owner and chief operator of Next level, Cen entered the arcade industry in 1996 when he began working at Chinatown Fair Arcade on 8 Mott Street for its then current owner, Samuel Palmer.  He himself being no stranger to competitive gaming, Cen helped modernize the arcade and bring it up to date with the tastes of arcade gamers. “I asked my boss at that time to invest in generally fighting games because they were popular, and music games because they generated the most revenue in the 90s,” Cen explained.

A link to the Past

Chinatown Fair, which originally opened in the 1920s and has gone through several owners and was at one point called the Golden Princess before Palmer moved it across the street and re-named it.  According to Cen, Palmer, who is now in his 80s, had a financial dispute with the building landlord, and unable to come to a resolution, closed Chinatown Fair in February 2011. Cen thinks that the folding of Chinatown Fair is indicative of the recent trend of shuttered businesses in Chinatown, and Palmer wasn’t the only store owner forced to close up shop. “There are a lot of stores in Chinatown now, and if you go down Mott Street they are all vacant,” he said. “It’s just absurd to charge that crazy amount of rent.”

With its open free-for-all gaming environment and location in a busy shopping district, accessibility and diversity was sometimes a double edged sword at the Mott street arcade.  Chinatown Fair was inviting to all sorts of players; casual gamers, hardcore gamers, and sometimes those just looking for trouble.   Mark Robson, a 28 year old graphic designer who has been playing fighting games a since he was a teenager said, “Back in the day when there were more traditional arcades in the early 1990s those audiences clashed. People would get into fist fights over dumb stuff.”

A mountain of a man and himself an avid gamer since he could hold a controller, Akuma Hokoru worked security at Chinatown Fair before joining Cen at Next Level, and often had to break up fights.  Though still responsible for security, Hokoru has since focused more on the additional responsibilities of being the Next Level’s announcer and tournament organizer.  He hasn’t had to stop any violence yet and feels that Next Level’s dedicated crowd is too mature to get into any physical altercations.

When the venerable Chinatown Fair shuttered last February, Cen came to the rescue and created a community for the dedicated regulars who frequented the failed arcade;  a community that, unlike Chinatown Fair, catered specifically to those serious about competitive gaming.  Himself a professional gamer, Cen says he understands the competitive gaming culture and his customers. “I’m not just an owner,” Cen explained.  “I’m a competitor, I go majors, regionals; I know what the players want because I’ve been playing professional gaming for so long.”

Cen often lends his expertise to the regular live broadcasts of tournaments on the e-sports websiteTwitch.tv, where he sometimes provides commentary and play by play analysis with other veteran gamers and Next Level employees.  Like their professional sports counterparts the commentators aim to break down some of the technical gameplay in popular fighting games like Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and provide insights into the gaming scene – and give an occasional humorous anecdote.

Though it has received more attention in recent years, professional gaming remains a generally esoteric concept even to those familiar with video games.  “The general public often plays games on a very elementary level, but some people play the game and take it to an analytical level,” said Robson.  “A lot of people don’t understand that there is an academic way to look at games, in the same way like looking at strategy and applying it.”

Go for Broke

Tournaments are perhaps the bread and butter at Next Level, explained Cen.  Held several times a week and attracting an upwards of forty people, these three to four hour long marathons allow gamers who have painstakingly honed their skills to show their chops to not only the local community, but also the national, professional fighting game scene.  There is also a chance to walk out with some prize money.  “We generally have a pot to which players contribute the entry fee to the tournament, which is sometimes $5, sometimes $10,” said Cen.  “Victors can win anywhere from $10 to $70 to depending on their placing.”

Making a few dollars playing your favorite games is nice, say Next Level’s patrons, but it’s not the sole driving force for many competitors. To them, even losing is an experience worth having. “I like meeting new players that change the boundaries of how I think the game is,” explained Robson. “If I go home, even if I lose, I learn something and that’s important for me.”

The top gamers at Next Level don’t stop at participating and winning local tournaments, a few gamers at venuel have the claim to fame as top competitors in their field, often sometimes traveling across the country and winning tournaments at other venues.  Nathel Florez is a 20 year old student who has been in the arcade fighting game scene for more than a year and a half and started playing Street Fighter IV at Chinatown Fair a few months before it closed.  He has won several tournaments at Next Level and even claimed top honors in the form of a Samsung Galaxy phone at a tournament hosted by the tech giant Samsung.  “It’s so hard to even get top five.  People distinguish higher and lower level by how they place,” Florez explained. “You have to really put a lot of time into it.  It takes a lot of work, a lot of mental preparation.”

Other players take gaming even further and make a career of the skills honed at Next Level.  Christopher Gonzales has just recently reached the legal drinking age of 21 but already holds the status of professional gamer, making his living primarily through endorsements and prize money. “I’ve played video games my whole life,” explained Gonzales in a tone eerily similar to a professional athlete. “One day, my uncle brought me to Chinatown Fair and that’s pretty much when I decided that I wanted to do it for a living.”   It doesn’t pay an exuberant salary and Gonzales isn’t rich, but he has travelled throughout the country to attend prominent tournaments in several states like Nevada, Florida, New Jersey – and even had a flight scheduled the next day for a sponsored tournament in Georgia.

Worlds Apart

Because of Next Level’s somewhat more inaccessible location than its Chinatown predecessor, and perhaps due to the proliferation of online gaming, gamers say that the tournament scene has diminished in New York.   All of the games played at Next Level can be purchased and be played on a home console such as Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, with internet play making it possible to get into a virtual ring against thousands of other players over a broadband connection.  Why then play at an arcade venue at all?

There is something “psychological,” about competing face to face with another gamer, said Cen; something that can never be replicated in a virtual environment.  Many gamers at Next Level feel that there is a disconnection in playing online games, both literally in terms of internet lag and unreliable connections, and the anonymity of playing with a complete stranger who may say or do things that they may not if they were playing against a human being in an interpersonal setting. “There’s definitely something more immediate about playing someone face to face,” said Robson.

Those who casually play fighting games at home and online may be ill equipped play competitively at Next Level, say a few of the gamers.  “If this is the first time someone has seen competitive gaming it can either go one of two ways,” Gonzales said. “One, they’re either very interested; or two, they are very,” he paused for a moment, “de-motivated.”

Expert or novice, casual or professional, Next Level offers something noticeably absent from many modern video games, a chance to hang our with friends and rivals, to play until your wrist are sore and your thumbs callused, without having to worry about exchanging dollar bills for quarters to feed the hungry arcade machines.

Cen is happy with the small cove he created for New York’s community of competitive gamers to whom the difference between the two is paramount.  And so long as there is demand for a competitive arcade in this constantly changing and evolving gaming scene, Cen says is willing to take it to it the next level.

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